Sunday, June 1, 2014


Readings: Acts1:1-11, Ephesians 1:17-23, Matthew 28:16-20

In medieval art, Jesus’s Ascension into heaven
was often depicted as Mary and the Apostles gathered together
looking up at a pair of legs and feet dangling from a cloud.
For people in the Middle Ages,
the universe was thought to be
a series of spheres
centered on the earth
and bounded by an outermost sphere
called the Empyrean heaven, a realm of pure light,
which was the dwelling place of God.
It was to this Empyrean heaven that Jesus had ascended.
Dante gives poetic expression to this
at the end of his Divine Comedy,
when he describes seeing God – Father, Son, and Spirit –
as three differently colored circles that are somehow one.
And the middle circle, Dante writes,
Within itself and in its coloring
Seemed to be painted with our human likeness
So that my eyes were wholly focused on it
(Paradiso, Canto 33).
Our humanity, which God the Son took upon himself
in being born of the Virgin Mary,
has in Christ’s Ascension entered into the life of God.
The union of God and humanity is not a temporary state
but has become an eternal reality
and serves for Dante as the focal point that allows him
to have some glimpse of our sharing
in the perfect peace of God,
the peace that surpasses our understanding.

Certainly for us
who no longer conceive of the universe
as centered upon the earth,
with heaven located somewhere above us,
pictures of feet dangling from clouds,
and perhaps even Dante’s sublime image
of a human figure
at the highest point of the empyrean heaven,
do not capture the mystery of the Ascension.
I suspect, however, that our difficulty
is not in the end
a problem with their picture of the universe
and of how to fit the mystery of Christ’s Ascension
into whatever our current picture of the universe might be.
It is rather the difficulty
of finding words to express so great a hope –
the hope that our poor, mortal humanity
might share in the riches of God’s glory,
might even now be dwelling
within the surpassing greatness of God’s power.
St. Gregory the Great wrote,
“The disturbance of things
may still be driving your hearts to and fro,
but fix the anchor of your hope
now in your eternal home” (Homily 29).
The Ascension of Jesus gives us
an almost unspeakable, unimaginable hope.

In the face of this mysterious hope,
all of us must make our own the words of Dante:,
O how pale now is language and how paltry
For my conception! And for what I saw
My words are not enough to call them meager
(Paradiso, Canto 33).
And yet we continue to seek ways to imagine
and words to express this hope.
The writer Maya Angelou, who died this past week,
concludes a poem entitled “Still I Rise”
with the following lines:
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
Angelou is writing about
the perseverance and hope
of women and African Americans
in the face of oppression,
a hope that cannot be held down
but from the darkest depths
surges ever upward toward the light.
But Angelou’s poem also gives us words to speak
of a more universal struggle
and a more universal hope.
Indeed, in the voice of the poet,
we can hear an echo of the voice of Christ,
the voice of the one who has ascended
above the night of fear and death
into the wondrously clear daybreak of the resurrection,
the voice of the one
who now fills all things in every way,
and is the dream and the hope
of all of those who are enslaved by sin and suffering,
the voice of the one who has lifted our humanity
into the life of God himself.
It is the voice that speaks to us who,
tossed to and fro in this world,
find in Jesus the anchor
that fixes our hope in eternity.

Though our words and images
may be less than meager,
we still give voice to the hope
born in us through Christ’s Ascension.
In every Mass,
as we enter into the Eucharistic Prayer,
the priest bids us to lift up our heats
and we reply that we lift them up to the Lord.
We proclaim that our hopes are fixed on Jesus
who in the Eucharist lifts us with him
out of the nights of our terrors and fears,
and into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear.
We rise
we rise
we rise.